Richard Cravatts: ‘Speech for me, not for thee’

Michael Oren, Ambassador of Israel to the United States, pauses during his speech as protesters interrupt his presentation.

Of the many intellectual perversions currently taking root on college campuses, perhaps none is more contradictory to what should be one of higher education’s core values than the suppression of free speech. With alarming regularity, speakers are shouted down, booed, jeered, and barrage with vitriol, all at the hands of groups who give lip service to the notion of academic free speech, and who demand it when their speech is at issue, but have no interest in listening to, or letting others listen to, ideas that contradict their own world view.

Coincidentally, last week two Israeli officials, Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon and ambassador to the United States Michael Oren had the unpleasant experience of confronting virulent anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian Muslim students whose ideology on academic debate seems to be “free speech for me, but not for thee.”

Ayalon, who spoke at Oxford University, had his speech interrupted by several audience members, including one who yelled incessantly and called Ayalon a “racist” and “a war criminal” while waving a Palestinian flag. Another student who loudly read passages of the incendiary Goldstone Report. There were calls from one charming scholar to “slaughter the Jews,” and the intrusion of a third student who remained standing for the entire balance of the lecture while she hurled anti-Israel invective. Still another radical brat who threatened to Ayalon with: “We will do to you what we did to Milosevic.”

The genteel, soft-spoken Ambassador Oren did not fare much better during his visit to the University of California at Irvine, a notorious hotbed of radical anti-Israelism by Muslim students. During the aborted speech to some 500 people about U.S.-Israeli relations, which was loudly interrupted 10 times, boorish hecklers screamed over Oren’s talk such profound observations as “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,” “I accuse you of murder,” “How many Palestinians have you killed?” and “Israel is a murderer.” Even after he took a 20-minute recess to let the crowd cool off and regain its collective composure, he returned to the podium with more volleys of invective, shouting, and speech-stopping bombast from the Muslim students, 11 of whom – eight from UC-Irvine (including the Muslim Student Union’s president) and three from UC Riverside – were eventually escorted out of the hall and arrested.

The fact that UCI’s habitually craven administrators, led by feckless Chancellor Michael Drake, were even motivated enough by the students’ errant behavior to have them ejected from the event is a promising sign. While the university has always claimed to be dedicated to encouraging debate and scholarly inquiry by letting the Muslim Student Union mount annual hate-fests to demonize and vilify Israel and Jews, the MSU has effectively hijacked all discussion of the Middle East on campus, and their odious events are not platforms at which opposing views are aired and discussed. In fact, these so-called pro-Palestinians seem to care very little about the actual self-determination and state building of the hapless Palestinians. As is frequently the case when speaking about the Israeli/Arab conflict, the discussion often glosses over the real problems of Palestinian culture, politics, and society (including its cult of death), and targets all criticism on the perceived defects of Israel, Zionism, and Jewish power.

Ambassador Oren is hardly what even his staunchest critics could consider an Islamophobe or even a rabid Zionist, perfectly willing to trample the Palestinian’s aspirations for their putative state. A Columbia and Princeton graduate, former Georgetown professor and fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center, the American-born Oren is also the author of two seminal books on the Middle East, “Six Days of War: June 1967” and the “Making of the Modern Middle East and Power,” “Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present,” all of which clearly make him at least as qualified to speak about the Israeli/Palestinian situation as the raucous, boorish students who had decided, in advance of his UCI appearance, that Oren was morally unfit to even appear on their campus.

This notion that pro-Israel speakers and scholars do not even deserve on a moral or intellectual basis, an opportunity to participate in scholarly debate is a very dangerous one, even if it comes from tendentious students. It starts with the assumption that Israel, because of its perceived moral defects and its oppression of the hapless Palestinians and the theft of their lands, does not even have the right to participate in intellectual debate; that academic free speech in Israel’s case can be modified and is not absolute. And while Muslim students and other campus radicals have, both at UCI and other college campuses, seen to it that speech that they do not approve of, spoken by people with whom they disagree, is shut down with the “heckler’s veto,” they have never missed an opportunity to invite their own stable of of slimyanti-Israel, anti-American speakers. What is more, these speakers have never been shouted down, chased away, or jeered by those students and professors who might well have found their views to be repellant.

A closer look at the ideas tossed about by some of the MSU’s invited guests suggests both the moral incoherence and intellectual debasement that characterizes the human output of these events. Amir-Abdel Malik-Ali, for instance, former Nation of Islam member, convert to Islam, and cheerleader for Hamas and Hezbollah, has been a ubiquitous, poisonous presence on the Irvine campus who never hesitates to castigate Israel, Zionists, Jewish power, and Jews themselves as he weaves incoherent, hallucinatory conspiracies about the Middle East and the West. Speaking from a podium with an execrable banner reading “Israel, the 4th Reich” in May 2006, Malik-Ali referred to Jews as “new Nazis” and “a bunch of straight-up punks.” “The truth of the matter is your days are numbered,” he admonished Jews everywhere. “We will fight you. We will fight you until we are either martyred or until we are victorious.”

At a 2008 event, dubbed “Never Again? The Palestinian Holocaust,” Malik-Ali was at his hateful best once again, standing behind a banner that read “Death to Apartheid” while he wildly contended that “The Islamic revival should only be feared by those who support imperialism, colonialism, racism, occupation … Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah” are not the real terrorists at all, he proclaimed. No, the actual “terrorists are the United States; the terrorists are Israel!”

Another odious guest speaker who regularly makes appearances on the hate-fest circuit is Muhammad al-Asi, an anti-Semitic, anti-America Muslim activist from Washington, D.C. who has written, among other notorious ideas, that “The Israeli Zionist are [sic] the true and legitimate object of liquidation.” At a MSU-sponsored event in February 2008, “From Auschwitz to Gaza: The Politics of Genocide,” which repulsively tried to draw parallels between the Holocaust and Hamas-controlled Gaza, al-Asi was a featured speaker. In his speech, he repeated the canard of Jewish control of world politics, suggesting that “Zionists or what some people call the Jewish lobby” had reduced the United States to playing “second fiddle to the Israeli government.”

Just months after 9/11, al-Asi had similar invective to utter towards Jews, in the context of Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Using his favorite image of the ghetto when describing Jews, he observed that “We have a psychosis in the Jewish community that is unable to co-exist equally and brotherly [sic] with other human beings. You can take a Jew out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the Jew, and this has been demonstrated time and time again in Occupied Palestine.”

If ever there were utterances which deserved to be shouted down and drowned out with reason and fact, al-Asi’s hallucinatory ravings probably would qualify. But despite continual complaints from the Orange County Task Force on Anti-Semitism and other concerned UCI stakeholders, the tenor and frequency of speakers at the MSU’s lurid hate-fests continue unabated, seemingly with the tacit approval of the university administration. The same Muslim students who could not abide even the presence of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, listen rapturously to the loathsome bloviating of Malik Ali, al-Asi, Norman Finkelstein, Ward Churchill, and any other ideological thug who have come to UCI’s campus with the purpose of vilifying Israel and defaming Jews.

It is, of course, the MSU’s choice to hear whatever ideas they wish from whichever speakers to whom they choose to listen. What is not their choice, however, is to be able to prevent other views from being heard on campus, particularly the complex and thorny Israeli/Palestinian conversation, merely because pro-Palestinian students have decided that they will not recognize the very existence or legitimacy of a sovereign nation, Israel, nor hear that ideas of individuals who are able to defend it and explain the Israeli side of the argument. University officials must repeatedly make clear that campuses must allow many different views and perspectives, and should not try to exclude unpopular thought from being heard in the proverbial marketplace of ideas.

Concern for the long-suffering Palestinians may be a commendable effort, but the exclusion and demonization of Israeli speakers and government officials from the academic community as a tool for seeking social justice for that one group “represents a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavor,” observed commentator Melanie Phillips, “which is freedom of speech and debate,” something universities should never stop diligently defending. And they should certainly never abandon that pursuit to the baleful whining of ideological bullies intent on suppressing the views of others.

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., director of Boston University’s Program in Publishing, just finished a book about the worldwide assault on Israel taking place on college campuses, Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel.